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Revised legislation on possible federal designation for Wasatch Canyons

Proposal creates new wilderness, watershed protection area

SHARE Revised legislation on possible federal designation for Wasatch Canyons
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Hikers make their way down the White Pine Lake Trail in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Steve Griffin

SALT LAKE CITY — The Central Wasatch Commission is continuing to push for a federal designation to protect key areas in Utah’s Wasatch Canyons, releasing a revised piece of Congressional legislation last week that would create new wilderness and a watershed protection zone.

While the legislation remains about “95%” the same as an earlier version, the commission’s executive director Ralph Becker said there are technical changes in this revision and language changes that make the bill more concise.

A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Sept. 9 at the Cottonwood Heights City Council offices.

Another public hearing will be held in the Park City area at some point. Public comments will be taken through Sept. 19, and Becker said comments will be summarized, as well as responses.

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A hiker walks on the White Pine Lake Trail in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Steve Griffin

None of the four ski resorts’ land is included in the 80,000 acre proposal, and operationally they remain subject to conditions of special use permits issued by the U.S. Forest Service.

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A look at proposed federal designations intended to protect key areas of Utah’s Wasatch Canyons.

Central Wasatch Commission

The proposal includes the White Pine Watershed Protection area, would add the Grandeur Peak/Mount Arie Wilderness Area and boost acreage for the Lone Peak Wilderness Area. It slices some land off a trio of existing wilderness areas to allow for the continued multiuse of the Lake Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

Becker said the bill contemplates land exchanges between the U.S. Forest Service and ski resorts in the Cottonwood canyons and the option for split-estate land exchanges, but the federal agency has expressed concerns in three key areas:

  • Acquiring split estate lands through trades in which those subsurface mineral rights have priority over surface activity.
  • Achieving value for value in any land trades, with appraisals that obviously place a higher dollar value on land at the base of ski resort operations than high country, high conservation value lands.
  • Acquisition of lands with any legacy mining contamination that would place the burden of remediation on the federal agency.

Becker said although these are hurdles to overcome, the Forest Service and ski resorts may be able to negotiate trades that still accomplish the goal of land conservation without compromising the federal agency.

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Hikers walk on the White Pine Lake Trail in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Steve Griffin

David Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said an independent consultant determined there was still “work to be done” on a value-for-value land exchange.

Under federal law, Whittekiend said agencies have to abide by the equal value dictate, and agency policy precludes acquiring any split estate land, where subsurface mineral rights — if acted on — take primacy over any surface use.

“Some of the lands offered to us had split estate,” Whittekiend said. “They are highly valuable from a conservation aspect, but we also have to look out for the best interest of the public.”

The issue of legacy mine contamination is also problematic for the agency, Whittekiend said.

“It is a pretty heavily mined area. We are not saying there is highly toxic material, but the land has been impacted by mining. ... The adits and the holes that are in the (mountains) — those come with some responsibility.”

Whittekiend said before there are any land trades the agency would conduct a thorough survey to determine any risk it might inherit.

“Ultimately we are evaluating these lands based on the interest of the public, the taxpayers and their money.”

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A wooden trail marker on the White Pine Lake Trail in Little Cottonwood Canyon is pictured on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Steve Griffin

Becker said there are 1,200 miles of mining tunnels in the Wasatch Mountains and he doesn’t believe there is enough heavy metals remaining for someone to exercise their split estate rights.

Still, he acknowledged the agency’s concerns and said there may be some workaround on the potential trades.

Legacy mining contamination of waterways is monitored the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Over the years, its Division of Water Quality has measured zinc, copper and cadmium in canyon creeks.

John Bennett, former staff director of the Utah Quality Growth Commission, flagged the contamination issue with Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem and co-chair of the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands. The commission voted late last year to craft a management plan for the canyons.

“Some might attempt to brush off this issue of exposed mine tailings in our watershed, but as we learned over the last couple of weeks, these mountains move,” Bennett wrote Stratton in a letter last week, pointing to an Aug. 8 mudslide in Little Cottonwood Canyon that deposited mud 15 feet deep and boulders the size of cars.

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Plant life along the White Pine Lake Trail in Little Cottonwood Canyon is pictured on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Steve Griffin

“It is not unreasonable to envision mudslides, containing large amounts of toxic mine tailings, dumping heavy metal contamination directly into the streams and rivers that provide drinking water to many.”

Bennett wants the issue of legacy mine contamination addressed in an upcoming meeting of Stratton’s committee.

Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said legacy mining and control of its contaminants poses complex problems for state and federal regulators.

“It is a legacy problem that we are very interested in addressing if we could figure out the right approach,” she said. “Yes, it is a concern, yes we would like to see it resolved and yes the impairments in the creeks are tied to legacy mining, but our approach has been to work with all partners in the canyons to find ways to mitigate.”

Gaddis said she has been working with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining and federal partners on an inventory of the 8,000 mine adits and portals throughout Utah, and where water may be discharging.

The extent of heavy metal contaminants is what triggers action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which activists called on to declare the Tibble Fork sediment release a Superfund site a few years ago.

The EPA did an analysis but did not make that designation.

In 2016, a $7.3 million rehabilitation project caused the inadvertent release of lead-contaminated sediment into the American Fork River, killing more than 5,000 fish.

In the aftermath, the state required an action plan to prevent further contamination and state water quality officials and mining regulators toured legacy mine sites to get a better understanding.

Whittekiend stressed that the Forest Service, despite some of its concerns, is continuing to work with the Central Wasatch Commission on possible land trades.

“We are reviewing the legislation right now,” he said. “We are looking forward to seeing what we can do to manage these areas.”

Becker said despite fears by some critics, the revised legislation does not overlay private lands and does not affect the ability of authorized users to maintain and operate water infrastructure with the applicable authorizations and permits.

It also does not restrict fire maintenance, fuels reduction, vegetation management and public safety management — such as avalanche control — through mechanized travel.

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A hiker crosses Little Cottonwood Creek near the White Pine trailhead in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Steve Griffin

Becker said the revision also does not preclude transportation improvements or improvements to trails or restrooms, making clear the ongoing traffic challenges in the canyons need to be addressed.

Ally Riding, a spokeswoman for Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said his office was approached about the canyons legislation.

“While Rep. Curtis has not take a position on the legislation as drafted, he continues to engage with various stakeholders to understand how the legislation will impact his constituents,” Riding said. “This includes interests with varying opinions, and Rep. Curtis has provided the commission with his views on the necessary consensus needed for the bill to earn the approval of Congress.”